The Early Edition: August 31, 2017

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

NORTH KOREA

The U.S. is “never out of diplomatic options,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday, speaking alongside his South Korean counterpart Song Young-moo about the U.S. approach to North Korea in light of increased tensions following Pyongyang’s launch of a midrange ballistic missile over Japan on Tuesday, contradicting comments made by the president on Twitter yesterday morning that “talking is not the answer,” Felicia Schwartz reporting at the Wall Street Journal.

“We continue to work together” to provide for the “protection of our nations, our populations and our interests,” Mattis also said yesterday, emphasizing the need for cooperation with allies and the international community to counter the North Korea threat, making the comments after a phone call yesterday between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, during which Lavrov expressed the opinion that diplomacy offers the only path to defusing tensions on the Korean peninsula. The BBC reports.

Japan would like a “strong resolution” on North Korea and would discuss this with the U.S., Japan’s ambassador to the U.N. Koro Bessho told reporters yesterday, a spokesperson for the U.S. mission to the U.N. stating that the U.S. remains in close consultation with Japan but is “not working on a new resolution at the moment,” Michelle Nichols reports at Reuters.

“It is now time for concerted action,” the U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood told a U.N. forum yesterday, urging the international community to fully enforce sanctions against Pyongyang, Stephanie Nebehay reports at Reuters.

U.S. warplanes joined South Korean fighter jets for live-fire exercises today, simulating precision strikes against North Korean “core facilities,” according to an official from Seoul’s Defense Ministry, sending a signal to the Pyongyang regime about its military capabilities. Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the AP.

Japan’s Defense Ministry requested $1.6bn for new missile-defense technology today and is seeking an allocation in the annual budget for the land-based Aegis Ashore missile-defense system, making the request after North Korea’s missile launch over Japan Tuesday and reflecting concerns in Tokyo that their existing missile-defense system may not be able to effectively counter North Korea’s missile threat. Mari Yamaguchi reports at the AP.

A U.S. warship successfully tested its missile defense system off the coast of Hawaii yesterday, intercepting a medium-range ballistic missile two days after North Korea’s missile launch, the Director of the Missile Defense Agency Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves praising the test as a “key milestone” to effectively counter threats from ballistic missiles. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

The U.K. and Japan will agree a joint declaration on security cooperation to counter the North Korea threat today, William James reports at Reuters.

Contradictory remarks from the Trump administration raise questions about the North Korea strategy, with mixed signals from the Defense Secretary and the President suggesting disarray within the administration or the possibility of a “good cop, bad cop” approach to exert pressure on Pyongyang. Zachary Cohen and Nicole Gaouette observe at CNN.

Kim’s comments following Tuesday’s missile test offers clues about North Korea’s ambitions in the region, Kim Tong-Hyung offers an analysis of his remarks at the AP.

Some experts fear that Trump will talk to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – which would be risky and likely to be unproductive – despite stating that “talking is not the answer.” Mark Landler explains the concerns of Asia experts at the New York Times.

“Korea passing.” The phrase that describes the feeling in South Korea that the country lacks a voice over its own fate and is seemingly ignored by the U.S. and other regional players, John Lyons explains at the Wall Street Journal.

SYRIA

The U.S.-led coalition conducted two airstrikes yesterday to block a convoy transporting around 300 Islamic State militants from the Lebanon-Syria border to eastern Syria province of Deir al-Zour near the border with Iraq, disrupting the evacuation that was part of a controversial deal brokered by the Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah militia group, which invited criticism from the top U.S. envoy for the international coalition against the Islamic State Brett McGurk, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and others. Nancy A. Youssef and Margherita Stancati report at the Wall Street Journal.

The convoy transporting Islamic State militants will continue to head toward Deir al-Zour, a top commander in the pro-Syrian military alliance said today, the U.S.-led coalition spokesperson Col. Ryan Dillon stating that the coalition may strike the fighters again, Reuters reports.

“Russian and pro-regime counter-I.S.I.S. words ring hollow when they cut deals with allow terrorists to transit territory under their control,” U.S. Central Command said in a statement yesterday using the acronym for the Islamic State, stating that in “accordance with the law of armed conflict” the U.S.-led coalition they did not strike the convoy, but “cratered” the road to “prevent further transport” of the militants.

The U.S.-led coalition struck “individual vehicles and individuals clearly identified” as Islamic State militants yesterday, although they did not strike the convoy of buses and ambulances, the spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition in Syria and Iraq Col. Ryan Dillon said yesterday. Rod Nordland reporting at the New York Times.

Criticisms of the negotiated withdrawal demonstrate the widening chasm between the various parties fighting Islamic State militants in the region, revealing the divergence in approach from the U.S.-led coalition and the pro-Assad alliance that includes Hezbollah, Syrian government forces and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia groups. Liz Sly and Tamer El-Ghobashy report at the Washington Post.

Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah hit back at criticisms of the deal, stating yesterday that the transported Islamic State militants would not change the course of the battle in Deir al-Zour – the largely Islamic State-controlled eastern province of Syria to which the convoy of militants were headed. The AP reports.

Lebanon’s army chief Gen. Joseph Aoun defended the withdrawal deal, stating that the evacuation of the Islamic State militants allowed the army to discover the fate of missing Lebanese soldiers, the BBC reports.

Jordan’s statement earlier this week about improved bilateral ties with Syria suggests that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s position as leader is secure, the countries committed to Assad’s removal have started to normalize relations with the regime and Western nations have lost interest in supporting the opposition. Martin Chulov observes at the Guardian.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 51 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on August 29. Separately, partner forces conducted five strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

The political-consulting firm of former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort undertook work that sometimes aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy objectives, revealing much wider connections to Russian figures, including oligarch Oleg Depriska, than previously reported, the firm also engaged with foreign work that may be deemed to be at odds with stated U.S. positions, such as in Georgia and Ukraine. Brett Forrest reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Indeed there was an email,” Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said yesterday in response to reports that Trump’s business adviser Michael Cohen contacted Peskov in relation to a Trump Tower development project in Moscow in mid-January 2016, stating that the Kremlin did not answer the request for assistance on the project, Thomas Grove reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“Mr. Cohen vehemently denies the claims made in the dossier about him,” Cohen’s lawyer said in a letter to the House Intelligence Committee yesterday, rejecting allegations made in a dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele that Cohen was a key figure in collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Maggie Haberman and Matt Apuzzo report at the New York Times.

Moscow-born businessman and former Trump associate Felix Sater is likely to be a key figure in the Trump-Russia investigation. Stephanie Kirschgaessner and Julian Borger explain his links to Russia, work for government agencies, and past dealings at the Guardian.

Trump promised federal support for the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley in a phone call yesterday, the timing of which proving to be noteworthy considering that the committee will interview Donald Trump Jr. in relation to the Russia investigation in the near future. Stephanie Kirschgaessner reports at the Guardian.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team and New York Attorney Eric Schneiderman’s team investigating Paul Manafort and his financial transactions have shared evidence and discussed mounting a potential case against Manafort. Josh Dawsey reports at POLITICO.

Who is lying about the Trump Tower development project in Moscow: Felix Sater who claimed Russia’s second-largest bank were ready to finance the deal, or representatives of the bank who denied the claim? Anna Nemtsova, Betsy Woodruff and Spencer Ackerman provide an analysis of the situation at The Daily Beast.

Russian lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin gave evidence before a grand jury investigation on Aug. 11 into links between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential election, according to two sources familiar with the matter, Katrina Manson reports at the Financial Times.

AFGHANISTAN

The U.S. military maintains 11,000 troops in Afghanistan, the Pentagon announced yesterday, revealing a figure 2,600 more than that disclosed previously and citing the need for transparency as the purpose for the announcement. Nancy A. Youssef reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Top Afghanistan officials denied contacts with Taliban leaders, after an AP report yesterday revealed that the Afghan intelligence chief speaks with Taliban leaders almost daily, and the Afghan National Security Adviser has discussed the future of the country with the Taliban. The AP reports.

“The main obstacle in the way of peace is the occupation,” Taliban leader Maulvi Haibatullah Akhunzadeh said in a statement yesterday, the AP reports.

The U.S. military are investigating allegations that civilians were killed during a U.S.-Afghan joint operation airstrike against the Taliban yesterday, Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

A roadside mine killed three police officers in western Afghanistan today, no one immediately claiming responsibility for the attack, the AP reports.

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE

Trump urged a diplomatic resolution to the Gulf crisis – which began when four Arab nations isolated Qatar in June – during a phone call to Saudi Arabian King Salman yesterday, Al Jazeera reports.

“We welcome all initiatives to resolve the Gulf crisis, and we support the Kuwaiti efforts in the direction,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a press conference with his Qatari counterpart Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdelrahman al Thani in Doha yesterday, adding that the crisis would only be resolves through dialogue between all the parties. Ali Younes reports at Al Jazeera.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

President Trump’s attacks on the media could amount to “incitement,” the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said yesterday, criticizing the president for denouncing news organizations as “fake” and warning that such language has “consequences elsewhere,” Nick Cumming-Bruce reports at the New York Times.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has successfully navigated the pitfalls of angering the president and maintaining a calm and principled line, revealing a political nous that his surprised many. Greg Jaffe and Dan Lamothe write at the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.N. Security Council voted yesterday to renew the mandate for the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), after compromise language of the new mandate addressed concerns by the U.S. and Israel that Unifil’s mandate should be extended to stop the Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah group building up its weapons near Israel’s border. Rick Gladstone reports at the New York Times.

N.A.T.O. will send two experts to Belarus and one to Russia to observe the Russia-Belarus joint “Zapad” military exercises scheduled to take place in September, N.A.T.O. announced yesterday, welcoming the opportunity to attend the exercise but criticizing the invitation as “not a substitute” for the kind of observation required under the Vienna Document governing military exercises in Europe. Julian E. Barnes reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The Trump administration notified Congress yesterday that it would provide military assistance to Pakistan on condition that Islamabad do more to crack down on terrorist networks carrying out attacks on Afghanistan, using the $255m as an incentive for Pakistan to help implement the new Afghanistan strategy. Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

Turkey protests “in the harshest way” the U.S. court decision to indict 19 people, including Turkish security officials, in connection to attacks on protestors during Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdogan to Washington D.C. in May, Turkey’s foreign ministry said yesterday. The AP reports.

The U.S. and Russia should resume contacts between military and foreign policy chiefs, Russia’s recently-appointed ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov said yesterday, Reuters reports. 

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About the Author(s)

Pouneh Ahari

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK